Anthony Chen is a local filmmaker who has won plaudits from all around the globe for his short film efforts. A graduate of Ngee Ann Polytechnic’s School of Film & Media Studies in 2003, he completed his MA in Film Directing at the National Film and Television School, UK. With a nomination for the prestigious Short Film Palme d’Or leading to a Special Mention in Cannes for Ah Ma in 2007, along with a nomination for the Golden Bear at the 58th Berlin International Film Festival to his name, he is arguably a leading light for the local film industry. I tracked Anthony Chen down after a Friday Seminar in September to ask him a few questions….
To give the readers more information and allow for a much easier hierarchy of content (and also because the interview often strayed away from the initial question, providing extremely enlightening bits of insight otherwise unrelated to the context of the question), this article will follow the natural flow of the interview i.e. question followed by answer.
CH (Chai Hong): What advice would you give a budding filmmaker, especially in Singapore’s context?
AC (Anthony Chen): You really have to grit your teeth through it and possess a lot of perseverance and determination. Filmmaking is not as beautiful and fluffy a picture as is painted by all the awards that Singaporean filmmakers win in festivals. Most of the time, it’s a painful process, which involves a lot of self-doubt.
Filmmakers have to really want to do it, to really love it; a lot of people in the industry move on to other things in a few years because they don’t earn a lot of money, and because it’s just not easy at all. Filmmaking is never easy, regardless of whether you’re in the UK, or in Singapore.
CH: What’s your approach towards making films?
AC: When I make films, ideas find me. What I mean is that ideas come to me when I observe people, when I listen to what people say in the streets, in cafes, on buses. The best directors are always great observers. I take note of nuances, dynamics and relationships between people. These places are the sources of my ideas, where issues pop out at me and make me think: “This needs to be said!”
CH: Do you limit yourself in terms of the size and scale of the production when coming up with stories?
AC: A good filmmaker never compromises (on his or her story). If the filmmaker wants something badly enough, he or she will make them work. With that being said, one should always recognise when something is simply out of reach or budget, but only after making a proper effort to achieve it.
However, I feel that the filmmaking process is more organic; with each passing film, the ambition grows, and a new set of challenges appears. And this process of making films usually get progressively more difficult as the filmmaker’s craft and ambition grows. Naturally, you don’t suddenly come up with a big-budget science fiction film out of nowhere – there has had to be a path of progression for one to arrive at such a milestone.
It’s the same with how babies learn to walk; they first learn to crawl, before walking, before running. Similarly, filmmakers grow with more practice, with more films under their belt, with more movies they’ve watched.
CH: When and how does a producer come in when you write on your work?
AC: My short films are usually produced by partners I made and found while in film school. Producing is one of the hardest things in terms of roles within films. While you have to think of the pragmatic, business side of things, you also have to bear in mind that it’s the producer that realises the director’s vision. A lot of times, it’s simply about finding the right producer for the right film, finding the one that believes in your work and will do his or her best to give you what you need.
I feel that it’s a problem when everyone wants to be a director. The industry really needs people equipped with other skill-sets; in art directing, producing, sound etc. People have to realise that if they can contribute so much more in another role, and realise someone else’s vision, don’t force their way into directing. This is simply because very few people are directors.
Producers are the problem solvers – when you see a film being realised on screen, it’s the producer who has made things happen. Sure, you may argue that it’s not artistic, but it’s necessary. Easy example: When a film wins Best Picture at an awards ceremony, it’s not the director, but the producer that receives the award.
CH: How do you feel about people romanticising the film industry?
AC: Mark Cousins, who has served as director of the Edinburgh film festival said that the medium of film is great, but the industry is shit. Romanticising the art is fine, as film, like all art forms, moves people in a certain way, creating emotions that can’t always be explained rationally. But the truth is, pragmatism rules the day while you’re on set. It’s all about adapting to different situations, thinking of solutions, and improvising, all in order to finish a certain amount of scenes in a day. It’s about how you make decisions. As it usually turns out, the final product of a film is never the same as what you envisioned it to be. More often than not, it’s 70% of how you imagined it.
A reality that I’ve observed is that the most difficult situations create the best work. If the set is really happy, and everybody is having fun, the film will usually turn out mediocre. Great art is created out of difficulty and pain, of people in conflict, of people shouting at one another.
CH: What is the biggest problem about filmmaking in Singapore?
AC: The biggest problem in Singapore is that a big part of the industry doesn’t really love cinema. At least 70-80 percent of people in the industry don’t watch great films, and don’t appreciate cinema. Most of them simply do it because they’ve been in it for a long time, or have been in TV and worked their way up. If you look at the great film nations, it has always been a great love for cinema in the industry that has spurred such development.
Our generation is the one that can change the situation. We need to keep the passion, and keep the love of cinema going strong.
Always watching the films meant for the lowest denominator will always limit you as such, never allowing you to expand your boundaries beyond a certain language of cinema, never allowing you to discover other methods of filmmaking.
Often, people coming out of film school like to go to the technical crew because it pays well. This a big problem as there are a lot of other roles that require talented people. At its essence, filmmaking is a collaborative process. It is pointless if a director doesn’t work with talented people. I regularly see people trying out different roles in film, and even showing potential and talent in those areas, but never allowing themselves to grow and continue with such paths, instead choosing a more popular role such as directing. The truth is that there simply aren’t enough directing jobs for everybody – choosing something else you might be better at might allow for a better career path.
CH: Have you ever had confidence issues as a director?
AC: It takes certain personality attributes to be a director, and not everyone is wired that way. Directors are stubborn, egoistic, and probably feel very good and confident about themselves. As a director, when you want something, you have to be really sure, and really specific. Directors are usually leaders, with a strong ego, and a lot of determination. Great filmmakers need 3 things to succeed: good taste, maturity, and sensibility. Good taste would simply be a person’s appetite, preference, and ability to appreciate films. Maturity would refer to an inner depth and sense of humanity for issues and emotions. This is essentially how you understand and comprehend the world and life. Sensibility is something that I feel is innate, and cannot be taught. Some people simply have this artistic sensibility, e.g. knowing how a person should act to evoke a certain emotion etc.
Sometimes, people spend a whole lifetime before discovering that they don’t possess any one of these qualities.
CH: What kind of advice would you give a student in a film school?
AC: The best people to work with are the people you have to fight with. A lot of the time, it is through this discourse, the mishmash of conflicting opinions, that you see things clearer. Oscar-nominated director Stephen Frears had this to say: “You spend your whole career finding out who are the geniuses, and who are the idiots”. The director might have some talents, but he doesn’t know everything. There are a ton of things he isn’t good at, such as casting, building a set, or having an eye for colours. The best filmmakers are those that know how to use talent (around them). Work with people who are smarter than you, the ones who can do things you can’t. Film is not about pleasing the world – if the film is made by catering to everyone’s tastes, it will never turn out well.
Is a director perfect? It’s a definite no, but he needs a team that believes in him and is comfortable with. In so many respects, the art of filmmaking grows with you. It doesn’t get easier, in fact, it gets progressively harder, but along the way, you get more confident.
CH: Any tips and tricks to share?
AC: Always cast the right people. Casting is 70% of your film. Simplicity is very important, the more simple it is, the more beautiful. A lot of people spend a whole lifetime trying to find this simplicity. Watch (Yasujiro) Ozu’s films. How does someone create a moving film with so little shots, so little drama, and so little dialogue? There are 3 things you need to keep in mind when making short films: Short films are usually about one thing. Short films are usually a slice of life, and happens over a few hours, or even a few minutes. Short films are usually subversive. It shouldn’t be something that people have seen before.
CH: Do you have any writing aids? What are they?
AC: I keep in close contact with and refer to tutors from my time in UK for notes about my scripts. It’s hard to write alone, especially when I feel that I’m not a natural writer. What I would really like to see are local writing talents. I’m sure they’re there, just waiting to be discovered. A lot of scripts in Singapore are really ‘in your face’. Local scripts need to show a better understanding of relationships; they need more subtext. The less being said is always better than more.
I attended a masterclass by Ridley Scott and he shared that he watches one film every day before he goes to sleep. That brings the grand total up to 365 films a year. This diet is based on all sorts of films, Japanese cinema, Kazakhstan cinema etc. Even at his age (74 this year), he is working so hard at his craft, doing his homework and learning new things every day. This work ethic and love of cinema just says it all about the success he has earned.
In the end, always remember that film is an emotional medium. People can intellectualise the means and methods however they want, but if a film is made with heart, the audience will feel it.
The interviewer, Cheng Chai Hong is a first year student at The Puttnam School of Film and Vice Chairperson of the PSOF Editorial Committee. He enjoys watching films and engaging in debates about the intricacies of life.